Want to help your resolutions stick? Make this one-word change

Dec 21, 2017 /

Psychologist Susan David explains why a simple switch from “I must go to the gym three times a week” to “I want to go to the gym three times a week” can put your goal within reach.

Ted was a London-based client of mine who became a good friend. He was forty pounds overweight and, because he traveled a lot for work, he found it difficult to get into a healthy routine. After a long flight, he’d show up at a hotel tired, hungry and missing his family. He’d seek out comfort in a cheeseburger and a couple of beers, then he’d graze from the minibar. His wife and doctor were after him to lose weight and exercise, but somehow, knowing what he “had to” do never got him to do it.

Ted married late in life, and he and his wife adopted a boy from Romania named Alex. Alex had been orphaned at a young age and had spent his early years in heartbreaking circumstances. He’d barely been held, touched or spoken to, and was so malnourished he developed long-term learning disabilities.

Despite these difficulties, Alex was a very talented artist. One day, when he was 10, he drew a picture of himself alone, desolate and abandoned. He titled his picture “The Orphan.” Ted was not surprised at the theme — Alex often depicted his early memories — but this time, Ted noted that the figure in the picture was a young adult. When he asked Alex about it, his son began to cry. He said he “just knew” his dad would die because of his poor health habits, leaving Alex fatherless again.

In that moment, Ted later explained to me, he went from feeling that he “had to” change his health habits to feeling that he “wanted to.” He was motivated to get healthy out of love for his child and the desire to see Alex grow up. Ted began to make small changes — ordering salad instead of fries, placing the minibar candy out of sight, and exploring cities on foot rather than by cab — and those changes added up. He lost weight and has kept it off, because he wants to.

When we’re compelled by a wagging finger instead of a willing heart, we end up in an internal tug-of-war between good intentions and less-than-stellar execution.

When we double down on discipline and willpower, this rarely leads to the best results. You may drag yourself to the gym, but how often does that lead to you sticking with an exercise routine? You may call up your relatives out of obligation, but how often do you have a meaningful conversation? When we’re compelled by a wagging finger instead of a willing heart, we end up in an internal tug-of-war between good intentions and less-than-stellar execution.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Plato captured this inner conflict with his metaphor of a chariot being pulled by two very different horses. One horse was passion — our internal urges — and the other was intellect — our rational, moral mind. Plato understood that we are constantly pulled in two opposing directions by what we want to do and what we know we should do. It is our job, as the charioteer, to tame and guide the horses in order to end up where we want to be.

Modern neuroimaging tells us that whenever the impulsive, reward-seeking system in our brain (passion) conflicts with our rational, long-standing goals (intellect), our brain tries to — pardon the pun — rein things in. Let’s say you’re trying to eat better. You’re at a restaurant, and you spot chocolate mousse on the dessert tray. That triggers activity in your nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain associated with pleasure. You want that chocolate mousse. But, no, you remind yourself, I can’t have it. As you muster up the strength to pass on dessert, your inferior frontal gyrus, a part of the brain associated with self-control, kicks in. With both areas activated, our brain is fighting with itself while we try to decide whether to dig in or abstain.

To make matters more complicated, our baser instincts have a head start. According to brain imaging, when we’re faced with a typical choice, basic attributes like taste are processed on average about 195 milliseconds earlier than health attributes. This might explain why, in one study, 74 percent of people said they would choose fruit over chocolate “at some future date,” but when fruit and chocolate were put in front of them, 70 percent grabbed the chocolate.

Want-to goals reflect a person’s genuine interest and values, while have-to goals are imposed, often by a nagging loved one or by our own sense of obligation.

Fortunately, there is a tiny tweak we can make to help us sidestep this competition between the two horses. Like Ted, we can position our goals in terms of what we want to do, as opposed to what we have to. When we tweak our motivation in this way, we don’t have to worry about which part of us prevails — our passion or our intellect — because our whole self is working in harmony.

Want-to goals reflect a person’s genuine interest and values (their “why”). We pursue them because of personal enjoyment, because of the inherent importance of the goal, or because the goal has been assimilated into our core identity. But most important, these goals are freely chosen by us.

Have-to goals, on the other hand, are imposed, often by a nagging loved one (“You’ve gotta lose that gut!”) or by our own sense of obligation, sometimes related to avoiding shame (“Good grief! I look like the Goodyear blimp! I can’t go to the wedding looking like this!”).

You can choose to eat a more healthful diet out of feelings of fear, shame or anxiety. Or you can choose to eat well because you view good health as an important quality that helps you feel good and enjoy life. A key difference between these two kinds of reasons is that although have-to motivations will allow you to make positive changes for a while, eventually that determination is going to break down.

Studies show, for instance, that two people with the same goal of losing five pounds will see that same serving of chocolate mousse very differently depending on their motivation. The person with a want-to motivation will physically experience it as less tempting (“The dessert looks nice, but I’m just not that interested”) and will perceive fewer obstacles in sticking to the goal (“There are other, healthier options on the menu”). Once she’s tweaked her motivation, she no longer feels like she’s struggling against irresistible forces.

Want-to motivation is associated with lower automatic attraction toward the stimuli that are going to trip you up — the old flame, the martini passing by on a waiter’s tray — and instead draws you toward behaviors that can help you achieve your goals. Have-to motivation, on the other hand, actually ramps up temptation because it makes you feel constricted or deprived. In this way, pursuing a goal for have-to reasons can undermine your self-control and make you more vulnerable to doing what you don’t want to do.

I’m not suggesting we should all simply think positive and ignore real concerns. If you can’t find a want to, then that could be a sign that change is in order.

If life is a series of small moments, each of which can be adjusted ever so slightly, and all of which, in combination, can add up to significant change, imagine how much ground you could gain by employing this simple tweak and finding the want to hidden in the have to. We all fall into these subtle traps of language and think, “I have to be on dad duty today,” or “I have to attend another boring meeting.” When we do this, we forget that our current circumstances are often the result of earlier choices we made in service of our values: “I want to be a father,” or “I love the work that I do and want to excel at my job.”

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we should all simply think positive and ignore real underlying concerns. If you can’t find a want to in some particular facet of your life, then that could be a sign that change is in order. If you entered your field because you wanted to make a difference in the world but your company is focused more on the bottom line, it may be time to switch jobs. Or if you’ve come to realize that your significant other is not the person you thought he was, you might need to seek a new relationship. Finding a want to is not about forcing any particular choice; it’s about making it easier to choose things that lead to the life you want.

Excerpted with permission from Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2016, Susan David PhD.